Activist: ‘Bangladesh cannot ensure rule of law’

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Democracy and the values of civil society have been serious challenges facing Bangladesh for decades. Since 1994, the human rights organization Odhikar (Bengali for “rights”) has created a countrywide network of members to promote the values of democratic civil society in Bangladesh. 

The group works on issues as varied as ensuring free elections to speaking out against torture, extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances. Adilur Rahman Khan has been the secretary of Odhikar since 1994 and is one of the world’s leading human rights campaigners.

It was recently announced that Khan will be awarded the 2017 Franco-German Prize for Human Rights and the Rule of Law. This is a joint award given out by the French and German foreign ministries to human rights activists in places around the world.

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DW: In Bangladesh, the number of disappearances and extrajudicial killings is increasing – especially against secular bloggers and activists. Why is the government not able to stop it?

Adilur Rahman Khan: When a government loses its democratic character and cannot ensure the rule of law, and when law enforcement agency members enjoy impunity despite their wrongdoings, the human rights situation of that country will surely deteriorate.

In Bangladesh there is a lack of the rule of law. There are a lot of incidents reported by national and international human rights organizations in which people are attacked, harmed and oppressed or abducted by the government agencies. If you cannot ensure rule of law, how can you protect citizens’ rights?

Adilur Rahman Khan bangladeschisch Menschenrechtsaktivist (DW/R. Rafe)

Adilur Rahman Khan: ‘The current scenario in Bangladesh does not guarantee equal participation of all political parties’

What role does civil society play in Bangladesh to ensure rights like media freedom and freedom of speech?

In Bangladesh, civil society cannot work due to immense pressure from the government. Those actually working to protect people are put under immense pressure. Even university teachers cannot express opinion without the fear of being harassed. Most electronic and print media are being operated by government supporters. Opposition media has been shut down, leaving no space for the opposing voices to be raised.

Has there been any harassment from the government or religious organizations against you and your organization, Odhikar?

Yes, and not only during this government, but we also were especially harassed even during the previous, military-backed government between 2007-2008. Odhikar directors have been detained by the military and harassment worsened during the period of the incumbent government. Odhikar faced difficulties renewing its registration, our funds were seized and the bank account was blocked.

One of our activists in Pabna district was shot dead while performing his duty. Many activists are facing trial under the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act.

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More than 20 journalists have been sued under the ICT Act prohibiting digital messages that “deteriorate” law and order, “prejudice the image of the state or person” or “hurt religious beliefs.” What do you think about the ICT?

It is a weapon to oppress citizens. It is not new in Bangladesh. In 1974, the government implemented an anti-terrorism act, with which it implemented their agenda and oppressed opposition. The current ICT Act seeks to control people if they raise their voice against any government irregularity.

Bangladesh’s parliamentary election will be held in 2019. There isn’t much time to prepare for a peaceful and participatory election. What should be changed in the political landscape of the country?

The current scenario in Bangladesh does not guarantee equal participation of all political parties. In Bangladesh, opposition parties cannot hold a political rally. To ensure a participatory election, an equal playing field needs to be established for all political parties to participate. The government should stop oppressing opposition leaders, and the media should be allowed to operate freely. Otherwise, a participatory and meaningful parliamentary election is not possible.

How do you think Germany and the EU can contribute to protecting human rights and free media?

The mandate of the EU, as well as Germany and France, is to establish human rights across the world. The EU is cooperating with Bangladesh to establish democracy and human rights. This cooperation should be continued so that emerging countries like Bangladesh can have a greater level of democracy and human rights.

The interview was conducted by Rahat Rafe.